The Idea of India and Its Thinkers

Seventy years on, the Republic of India is now at one of those crossroads when its foundational ideas are being questioned. Its middle classes, in the throes of an existential crisis as the globalisation that made them reverses, have found their demon in the idea of India itself. Nations, usually, consider their origin stories with a special fondness and deep reverence, enshrining the creation ideas as the basis of all new imagination: Despite the passing of the years, the British therefore looks at the Glorious Revolution, the French to French Revolution, the Italians to Risorgimento and the Americans revere their Founding generation. But, in India, as a newly-rich, recently disappointed middle class hunt for the ghosts, they find their Republic flawed, its democracy rickety, its people disunited, and above all, the idea that unites it all misdirected.

This makes a re-examination of the idea of India worthwhile. Surely, this is much discussed, but as the optimism turns to pessimism and pride turns into embarrassment, and a commitment to change takes hold, a new priority, to debate, to understand and to rediscover, has arisen. This is especially so as the new debate opens up two seemingly contradictory and yet coexistent possibilities: That there was not one but many competing ideas of India, and yet, the Republic was founded not on ambiguity but on certainty, a vision as forceful as any: It was arrived at not hesitatingly, but optimistically; and was proclaimed with a faith in the country's future, with an aspiration of universality reminiscent of the great experiments of Paris and Philadelphia.

This synthesis was the founding generation's great work, and in this, despite their differences, Sardar Patel, BR Ambedkar, Rajendra Prasad, Pratap Singh Kairon, Frank Anthony, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Sarat Chandra Bose, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, C Rajagopalachari, Maulana Azad, Somnath Lahiri and other members of the Constituent Assembly for drafting Indian Constitution worked together. Coming at a time when violence and division was on the air, the commitment to democracy and republicanism needed imagination and accommodation. These were people with great intellect and independent vision, and they acted with responsibility and with a sense of purpose over consideration of personal profit, to accommodate diverse ideas into an unified imagination of a modern state. It is this imagination that we are concerned with here - this is what is being questioned today - and this unifying imagination of India, I shall claim, was the work of three men: Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

While names of Nehru and Gandhi are obvious, Tagore's inclusion in this list is likely to elicit surprise. However, Tagore's vision was both distinct and influential. Tagore, who remained outside the political mainstream, was often his country's ambassador to the rest of the world, imagining an engaged, global India, a vision that he sought to realise in his educational enterprises. Tagore was deeply engaged with Gandhi, influencing and getting influenced by the latter, and Nehru acknowledged his intellectual debt to Tagore openly and frequently. Thus, some of Tagore's ideas, a diverse and tolerant India, India as an Asian nation, and India with a mission of peace in the world, remained at the core of the imagination of the founding generation.

However, the ideas of the three men were very different. Tagore envisioned a kind of modern and peaceful nation, which was distinct from Gandhi's, who saw India in its villages. Tagore's cosmopolitan globality was also at odds with Gandhi's commitment to tradition and rooted practises.

And, while Nehru might have agreed with Tagore in the quest of modernity and peace, Tagore would have disagreed with Nehru's technocratic ideas. Tagore remained committedly outside Nehru and Gandhi's nationalism, considering nationalism exclusivist and anti-humanistic. And, yet, Tagore was no ascetic detached from the realities of political struggle: His voice was heard at crucial junctures of Indian and World History, and through his art, he was omnipresent to this day in the political discourse in India. 

And, despite their differences, the trio was united in one thing: Their imagination of India was something different and bigger than the other competing ideas. First, they all conceived India as a historical entity, something that existed long before the British arrived, rather than a political entity cobbled together by imperial conquests. Second, they saw India as more than an European-style nation, a relatively modern entity founded on an illusion of homogeneity of its people, but rather invoked both its tradition of tolerance and the modern imagination of a moral community to imagine a community of people united in its purpose in the world. Third, they all agreed on the unique mission of India in the world: Peace and nonviolence, tolerance and hope. Fourth, in their own different ways, they found India in its nature: Nehru in Ganges and the Himalayas, Gandhi in its villages and fields, and Tagore in its rivers, seas and mountains. And, in this, they saw timelessness: An India that always existed, and will always exist, regardless of temporary predicaments. Despite the inglorious conditions they lived in, their's was an optimism of persistence, of a great and incorruptible civilisation.

Today, these ideas are being contested. A certain narrowly technocratic vision of India is triumphant, and India is at odds with its own history. A myth of India, which invokes ancient glory but mirror the imperial imagination for its content, has taken over the conversation. In some ways, this marks a return to the nationalism of a nineteenth century variety, which is based on a deep historical pessimism. At the core of this idea is a narrative of a fall - India as a glorious country that fell to pieces - one that dates back a millennium, to the advent of Islam in India. The adolescent India, still unsure of its place in the world, have taken on to a legend of the fall. And, hence, for this new generation, the founding ideas appear too weak, too ambiguous or too limiting. Currently, this anger is the handmaiden of a corporatist vision of India, the political excuse for an elaborate ploy to undermine the Republic: On offer is an alternative idea of Capitalist Disneyland. This is what makes reopening the conversation about the Idea of India, and its thinkers, an urgent and important issue.


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